I have been asked to contribute a series of blog posts considering the problem of the relationship of the “violent God” of the Old Testament and the “peacemaking” Jesus of the New Testament. Furthermore, I have been asked to keep this rather simple, but simple need not mean simplistic. The audience (you) I am addressing is one I am familiar with having at one important time in my life shared its values and orientation. In some ways I have never left this way of thinking and being so to begin I would like to affirm those areas where I suppose I am still an Evangelical at heart.
I recognize that Evangelicalism has many roots and many branches. At the heart of Evangelicalism are two crucial components, as I see it: a) a vibrant personal relationship with God, Abba, Jesus, and Holy Spirit and b) a recognition that the Bible plays a crucial authoritative role in the church. I affirm both of these. Some would add a third component to Evangelicalism, c) a strong social-justice component. That too is something I concur.
How we understand these three components is, however, open for conversation. For example, regarding a personal relationship with “God”, how shall we understand this? Do we mean a daily discipline of Scripture reading, prayer and possibly fasting? Or might we mean a more ‘mystical’ union expressed in meditation and contemplation? This last is highly criticized by some Evangelicals who take a more rationalistic approach to things spiritual, yet has been beneficial to so many others, myself included.
How might we conceive of the question of the authority of Scripture? Is the Bible inerrant or just infallible, or something else altogether? Is it to be read literally or figuratively? Does our canon have 66 or 80 books? Do we read the text through a historical-grammatical lens or might we also engage a historical-critical one as well? Evangelicals have fought many verbal wars over the last century on these issues.
I realize that the position I am taking in these blogs is substantively different than the default position of many of my readers. I only ask that you be willing to consider that the questions I raise are legitimate questions. Maybe the answers I have formed for these questions are not the best, they certainly are not infallible (no one, to my knowledge, has ever proposed that I be named Pope), but they are the best, most studied responses I have come up with.
Today, Evangelicalism is hemorrhaging. More and more persons are leaving the Evangelical churches. The growth of the emergent church, the New Monastic movement, and others have become havens for those who wish to retain an identity that is congruent with their giving Jesus a central role in faith. Many are the reasons why people leave Evangelicalism. Here are a few:
- The demand for intellectual certainty is not real in the modern world.
- Evangelical churches are perceived as bastions of legalism.
- Hypocrisy: Where faith and life do not seem to meet.
- Intolerance: Where walls are more important than doors.
- Politics: Where faith and cultural ideologies have merged and blurred.
- Economics: Where faith and blessing are conceived of in terms of financial gain or social success or fame.
These are just a few reasons why people I speak to have left the Evangelical tradition. Too many Evangelicals look more middle class American than they do a first century impoverished preacher of the peace and justice of God’s reign. That great critic of Christianity, Nietzsche observed over a hundred years ago that Christians didn’t look much like Jesus. When I attend Evangelical church services I hear and see far more about what it means to be American than I do what it means to follow Jesus.
If Jesus is to be our guide then I think it is important to begin all of our Christian thinking by taking his person, work and message as our starting point and working out how we are called to follow him in our lives. My major concern about Evangelicalism is that it spends far too much time defending a position that it needs to be unassailable than in asking how following Jesus also changes the way we think and live in our world. From my perspective, theology is not a final destination of intellectual certainty, but a journey. I know this is a worn out metaphor, but each age is called not to simply put the past in some theological trophy case, as though the answers to past problems were also the answers to present problems. Our world is different than that of Paul or Athanasius or Luther or Wesley. To remain with and defend the solutions of the past is not to listen to the Spirit as we engage the Scriptures the way they also did. We must be willing to think and rethink again and again what it means to be disciples in the present moment.
Discipleship means following Jesus. But which Jesus? There are many portraits of Jesus in the church today. Some of them do not look at all like the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. Some pastors want a manly Jesus, one they could beat them up. Others have a militant Jesus who would carry an AR Bushmaster into the Temple. Still others have a law-abiding Jesus whose mission it was to be a good citizen. Some have a Jesus who is coming back really, really mad at “this sinful God-forsaken world.” None of these is the Jesus of Mark, Luke or John.
In order to understand Jesus it is important to know his context. One of my first teachers told us that “a text without a context is a pretext” or as my friend Australian Jarrod McKenna says “a text without a context is a con.” Evangelicals have a very bad habit of trying to make Jesus historical context fit their pre-formed ideas so that Jesus comes out looking like they already suspected. This is just bad history. For me, historical context in interpreting the story of Jesus is important so here are a few facts that do not fit an Evangelical reading of history but are nevertheless true of Jesus’ time:
- There were sacred texts in Judaism but no such thing as a collection known as the Old Testament.
- Certain groups held some texts as more authoritative than others; there was no group that held that all Old Testament texts (as we know them) all had the same authority.
- Some groups interpreted some Old Testament texts by other Old Testament texts in order to make them “up to date.”
- Different groups had different interpretive methods when they read their sacred texts.
- Some groups held texts not in our Old Testament as Scripture (e.g. I Enoch or the Book of Jubilees).
This flies in the face of most Evangelical theories of inspiration which require one to believe not only that God wrote the entire Old Testament (and the New) and providentially secured those writings for us in this book we call “The Bible.” Most Evangelicals I know are at this point very upset for the foundation of their thinking requires them to believe first and foremost that God wrote the Bible, that everything the Bible says is true and that to believe otherwise is to question the authority of God. They do not seem to be able to see that the Bible is not the heart and soul or center of Christian faith, Jesus is.
Now some may say, yes, but if you can’t trust the Bible how can you trust the Gospels which tell you about Jesus? I am not saying that one must be a historical skeptic. It is possible (many have done it) to make a good case for the historicity of Jesus as well as his message. What it boils down to is this: when you read the Bible are you reading the Jewish and Christian sacred texts the way Jesus read them?
Some say that because Jesus quoted certain Old Testament texts he thereby validated the God-inspired authority of all biblical texts. To assert this one must think like a Calvin but not like a Luther, who was not afraid to ask questions about the gospel nature of the biblical texts. Now it is true that Calvin or more specifically Calvinism (for there is a gulf between them) is at the root of Evangelicalism. But Calvin is not the Lord Jesus and when they read Old Testament texts they had very different understandings of the authority of those texts. So the question is, are we more concerned to defend Calvin, Calvinism and Evangelicalism or are we willing to take the plunge and ask the question “How did Jesus read his “Bible?”
Before we look at one text in some detail, I need to dispel what I think is part of the fallacy of Evangelicalism: Jesus believed that the Old Testament, lock, stock and barrel, was THE WORD OF GOD.
First I want to look at two texts that are used by some to assert that Jesus affirmed in whole the authority of the Hebrew Bible. So open your Bibles to Mark 12:35-40 where Jesus quotes Psalm 110. I When Jesus quotes Psalm 110, he adds an aside ‘David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit declared…” Some see here a warrant for saying that the Hebrew Scriptures are ‘God-breathed’ (a la 2 Tim 3:16). But Jesus’ selective use of Psalm 110 may also be an alternative interpretation of this Psalm to militant notions of Messiah critiques that interpretation. More than likely, this phrase is meant ironically as in “Your Bible says this and since you believe your Bible is inspired you must answer the question.” Jesus could be just as ironic as Socrates.
We have the same thing going on in John 10:34-39. Here Jesus, in describing his relationship to the Father, is about to be lynched. In this mob scene, Jesus is going to be publicly executed for violating ‘law’ that is, committing blasphemy. Jesus says, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods?’ (Psalm 82:6) If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the word of God came – and the Scripture cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart and sent into the world?” Once again the phrase “and Scripture cannot be broken” is used ironically. Jesus is saying “Look you believe in an inspired Bible, so how do you handle this text? And if we are all “gods” why are you bothered when I say God and I have something special going on?” This irony of Jesus is found throughout the Gospel of John, but also notice the fact that the law referred to has a possessive pronoun, it is “your Law.” Jesus is not owning the “Law” as his, nor is he saying it is God-given. Something else is happening here. In neither case do we need to see in these texts some kind of theory of inspiration; on the contrary, both texts give us a theory of non-inspiration. What do I mean by this?
When we looked at Mark 12 and Jesus’ use of Psalm 110, we saw that Jesus’ explicitly chose to refute the Hasmonean (i.e. post-Maccabean) interpretation of the Psalm which pictured Messiah as a militant deliverer, a warrior like David. By not quoting Psalm 110: 2-3, 5-7. Jesus refused to perceive his mission in terms of a militant deliverer. Jesus explicitly rejected this ‘‘christology’ and it is something he does throughout the entire gospel tradition. Remember, even the disciples didn’t get it while he was alive, how much less the crowds or the authorities. But this use of Psalm 110 is indicative of a method of reading the Jewish sacred texts.
This same method can also be found in Matthew 5 where Jesus contrasts his speech with that of Moses in the Torah. No matter how you slice it, Matthew 5:17-20 is not about abolition of Torah but about its fulfillment, a real God directed fulfillment seen in the ‘I say unto you’ portions. It is the rejection of religion and the affirmation of the spirituality (and sociology) of forgiveness and non-retribution. For those who want to authorize wars or the use of violence in any form as a “God-given right”, the Sermon on the Mount is their stumbling block. Matthew 5-7 is the rejection of a militant spirituality, just as Jesus’ use of Psalm 110 is a rejection of a militant Christology.
I needed to clear some potential objections out the way. That is, there is a way of reading these Gospel texts that does not necessarily indicate Jesus affirmed a B.B. Warfield or Roger Nicole theory of inspiration. There are alternatives.
Here is what I would ask of you: consider that theology is not a once-for-all, one-size-fits-all thing. Consider that we are constantly being urged on by the Holy Spirit to critically engage our cultures as well as our traditions and most of all our sacred texts. As thinking beings it is important that we…think! I am not asking anyone to throw out the Bible, I am no liberal, nor am I asking anyone to throw out the Old Testament, I am not a Marcionite (a second century heretic who wanted the ‘good’ God of the New Testament but not the violent ‘god’ of the Jewish Scriptures). I do believe that all of Scripture is important and that it all must be interpreted. In my next post I will offer a close reading of one such text from the Life of the Lord Jesus.
Let us look at one text very closely to see this very clearly. The rest of this blog entry is taken from my book The Jesus Driven Life (www.thejesusdrivenlife.com).
We have learned from modern theologians that what one says about Scripture and how one uses it can be two different things and that how one uses Scripture is the real indication of what one believes about it. I notice, for example, that many preachers use Scripture as a diving board, they quote it and then jump off into a pool of ideas, leaving the biblical text behind. What they say might be good or true or even relevant but it has little or no connection to the passage under discussion. Other preachers I have heard treat Scripture like they are in a 7th grade science class dissecting a frog. They notice with some repugnance the things they don’t like and can be quite critical of the process of having to figure out what lies before them.
Some have a high view of Scripture by which they mean Scripture is the Word of God, inspired and without error, yet the way in which they use it betrays that they really don’t take it very seriously. These folks ignore context and a text without a context is a pretext. These folks have what I call the Old McDonald approach to the Bible, here a verse, there a verse, everywhere a verse verse. Contemporary fundamentalist preaching is like this, a string of verses on a chain like pearls that all make whatever point the preacher is seeking to get across.
Protestants frequently argue that because Jesus quoted the Jewish Bible, this means that he accepted its authority as a whole. When they do this they import a modern view of the authority of Scripture back into the past. I noted earlier that there were many and varied views of the authority of the biblical writings and that not all groups in Jesus’ time had the same view of biblical authority. It is also true that the way the New Testament writers and Jesus quote and interpret Scripture follows certain patterns in their culture. Groups in Jesus’ day had rules or guidelines for interpreting the biblical text. The key question for us, and one that is rarely raised is this: Did Jesus have a way of using his Bible that was different from those around him? I want to suggest that he did.
The key text for us to explore in this section will come from Jesus’ inaugural sermon at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth found in the Gospel of Luke (4:16-30). To be fair, many critical scholars see the hand of the Gospel editor all over this text, noting that many phrases are typical of Luke. Nevertheless, I suspect that there is an authentic story underlying this text inasmuch as Jesus’ first sermon almost gets him killed. As I hope to show, there is also a tremendous congruity with how Jesus interprets the Scripture in this text and his way of understanding both theology and ethics.
In Luke 4 Jesus returns to his hometown in Nazareth after having been baptized and then tested in the wilderness. He enters the synagogue and is asked to be the Scripture reader. In Jesus’ day this could have taken two forms, the first is the actual reader (vocalizer) of the Hebrew text that would not have been understood by Galileans. It would be like someone reading from the Greek New Testament in church today. The second role would be that of a translator/interpreter known as a targumist. This person would not read from a scroll but recite from memory a ‘standard’ translation (a Targum) in Aramaic that was the common Semitic tongue in Palestine. Luke appears unclear as to which role Jesus took, perhaps conflating both roles into one.
Nevertheless in Luke, Jesus arises takes the scroll and reads from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After this he rolls the scroll up, hands it over to the attendant, who puts it away and then Jesus sits down. The sermon was short and sweet. He says, “Today this text has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now what follows is strange for at first it appears that the listeners are quite glad for what Jesus said. But he retorts rather sarcastically and proceeds to cite two examples to justify his sarcasm. It is at this point that the crowd wants to take him out and kill him by throwing him off a cliff. This really doesn’t make much sense. Some interpreters might argue that what got Jesus in trouble was some sort of ‘divine’ claim, that God had anointed him to be special. But is such the case? In order to see what is happening we shall note three critical but interrelated aspects of the text.
First, is the way Jesus cited the text compared to what is actually in Isaiah, second, the translation problem of verse 22 and the third is why Jesus uses these specific examples from Elijah and Elisha. When teaching this passage I point out that Isaiah 61:1-2 was one of the more popular passages in Judaism. It is cited in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other writings as well as in rabbinic literature. Have you ever seen a football game where, after a touchdown, somebody holds up a sign in the end zone seats that reads “John 3:16?” If they had played football in Jesus’ day, that sign would have read “Isaiah 61:1-2.” What made it so important was that it was a lectionary passage for the Year of Jubilee. This was a text that expressed the hope of Israel for liberation from the bondage not only of
spiritual dis-ease but also political and economic oppression. The vision of Isaiah was one of shalom, wholeness in all of life.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus does not cite the entire text but eliminates one very important line, “and the day of the vengeance of our God.” The question is why did he do this? Some suggest that now is the time of grace and so Jesus holds off on quoting the text about God’s vengeance since that will come later at the end of time. But nowhere else does Jesus seem to quote the biblical text in this fashion, and he never seems to break the work of God into dispensations or periods of time. Something else is going on here.
Second is the problem of translation that arises in Luke 4:22. Most translations indicate that the crowd was pleased with Jesus. These same synagogue hearers then comment, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The intonation we are supposed to supply would be something like “Oh, what a fine sermon and what a fine preacher Jesus has turned out to be, his father would be so proud!” But is this the case? The Greek text is quite simple and the King James has adequately translated this “and all bore witness to him.” This bearing witness in the KJV is neither positive nor negative. Why then do translators say, “all spoke well of him?”
Translators have to make what is known as a syntactical decision, they have to decide whether or not the “bearing witness” is negative or positive. Technically speaking they have to decide if the dative pronoun “to him” is a dative of disadvantage or a dative of advantage; was the crowd bearing witness to his advantage or to his disadvantage? If it is the former case then the intonation we gave to “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” above would make sense and Jesus immediately following gets sarcastic for no reason, but if it is the latter then we could just as well translate this text as “and all spoke ill of his sermon”, that is, they didn’t like what he did, then the intonation of the phrase “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” should be rendered something like “who does Jesus think he is coming into our synagogue and saying such things?” With this alternate, preferable translation, of verse 23 Jesus is not being sarcastic but is responding to the negativity of the listeners.
A third point to be made concerns the two examples Jesus cites from two of Israel’s greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha. In both cases Jesus notes that God worked not within the bounds of Israel but outside the chosen people when he sent these prophets to feed and heal. What is the connection between what these prophets did and what Jesus did when he quoted the Isaiah text, and why did the crowd get angry enough with him to want to kill him?
We noted that when Jesus quoted the Isaiah text he did not quote the phrase “and the day of the vengeance of our God.” If, in popular opinion, part of the promise of jubilee was that God would deliver Israel from her oppressors, and if that expectation was that God would punish her oppressors, then the phrase “and the day of the vengeance of our God” would be an aspect of the longed for and hoped for deliverance by which Israel’s enemies would be cast down. Political deliverance was perceived as an aspect of God working wrath on Israel’s enemies. By eliminating this line, Jesus also eliminated the possibility that jubilee included God’s wrath upon whoever was oppressing Israel. His words were indeed “gracious words” (“words of grace”).
The citation of the two examples of Elijah and Elisha then justify Jesus’ exclusion of this vengeance saying for both prophets had worked their healing miracles among foreign outsiders, those whom God was supposed (in popular piety) to hate. In short, Jesus is saying to his synagogue hearers “Jubilee is here, not only for you but also for those you hate; in fact God also goes to your oppressors with this message of jubilee, deliverance and salvation.” Now we can begin to understand why they got so mad at him.
But there is a further implication to be drawn from this. By eliminating the phrase regarding God’s vengeance, Jesus is removing the notion of retributive violence from the doctrine of God. He is in effect saying that God is not like you think, loving you and angry with those you hate. There is a great bumper sticker making the rounds these days that captures this problem. It says “Isn’t it convenient that God hates the same people you do?” Like Israel, we too have a tendency to want to believe that God is on our side and will judge “the other” who is over against us, or different from us. Such was not the case with Jesus. He observed that God makes no distinctions between righteous and wicked, between oppressors and oppressed, they both need deliverance and God’s blessing. Did he not say, “God makes rain to fall on good and evil and sun to shine on just and
unjust?” (Matt 5:45)
The most important point I sought to make in The Jesus Driven Life is, namely that, like Jesus, it is essential for us to begin to reframe the way we understand the “wrath” or retributive violence of God. To suggest that God is nonviolent or better yet, that God is not involved in the cycle of retributive vengeance and punishment will undoubtedly strike many as wrong. Some having read this far are no doubt ready to burn these blog posts. If you are feeling this way, then what is the difference between how you feel and how Jesus’ hearers felt that day when he preached in his hometown synagogue? Nothing irks some folks more than losing a God who is wrathful, angry, retributive and punishing. This is only because we want so much to believe that God takes sides, and that side is inevitably our side.
So much of Jesus’ teaching subverts this way of thinking. One example is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18:9-14 (1.3), where what counts as righteousness is completely and totally turned on its head! If, in fact, Jesus begins his ministry by asking what God without retribution looks like, and if he acts this way in his ministry, and if he interprets his Bible to say such things, the question arises “Shouldn’t we also follow Jesus in interpreting our Bibles in the same way?” That is, is biblical interpretation also a part of discipleship (5.4)? Does following Jesus include more than just living a virtuous life? Might it also have to do with helping folks change the way they envision God? Such was the case for Jesus who called people constantly to “change your thinking.” This is what repentance is, changing the way you think about things (Greek metanoia). When we change the way we see and understand the character of God, everything else changes and we turn back (Hebrew shuv) to the living and true God.
We can see Jesus doing the same thing in Luke 7:18-23 when he responds to the followers of John the Baptist. Herod had imprisoned the Baptist for his preaching against the Herodian family system. John did not want to die without knowing whether Jesus was the one to come. Now what could possibly have created this doubt in John’s mind? The answer comes in Jesus’ response to John’s followers. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard,” Jesus says and then follows a list of miracles. Is Jesus saying, “Tell
John you have seen a miracle worker and that God is doing great things through me?”
Doesn’t John already know these things about Jesus? Surely he does. Healers were rare but they were not uncommon in Jesus’ day. What then is Jesus really saying? Luke 7:22ff is a selection of texts, mostly from Isaiah but also including the miracles of Elijah and Elisha (blind Isaiah 61:1-2, 29:18, 35:5, lame 35:6, deaf 29:18, 35:5, poor 29:19; dead/lepers I Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 5:1-27). The Isaiah texts all include a reference to the vengeance of God none of which Jesus quotes. As in Luke 4 what is at stake is the retributive violence of God that was an important aspect of John’s proclamation (Luke 3:7-9). John, like the prophets before him, believed that God was going to bring an apocalyptic wrath. Nowhere in Jesus’ preaching do we find such and this is what confused John, just as it confused Jesus’ synagogue hearers. Jesus implicitly tells John, through his message to John’s followers, that the wrath of God is not part of his message, rather healing and good news is. That is, Jesus is inviting John to read Isaiah the way he did!
The last thing Jesus tells John the Baptists’ disciples is “Blessed is the person who is not scandalized on account of me?” What could have caused this scandal? What had Jesus said and done that would cause people to stumble on his message? The clues are here in both Luke 4 and 7. Jesus did not include as part of his message the idea that God would pour out wrath on Israel’s enemies in order to deliver Israel. Violence is not part of the divine economy for Jesus.
Sad to say, most Christians still think more like John the Baptist than Jesus. Christians have lived a long time with a God who is retributive. We say that God is perfect and thus has the right to punish those whom he deems fit. We say that God will bring his righteous wrath upon all those who reject God. We say that God can do what God wants because God is God. All of this logic is foreign to the gospel teaching of Jesus about the character of his heavenly abba. Jesus does not begin with an abstract notion of God or Platonic metaphysics, but with the Creator God whom he knows as loving, nurturing and caring for all persons regardless of their moral condition, their politics, their ethnic background or their social or economic status. God cares for everyone equally and alike.
By removing retribution from the work and character of God, Jesus, for the first time in human history, opened up a new way, a path, which he also invites us to travel. Sadly, few have found that this path and church history is replete with hundreds, even thousands of examples of a Janus-faced god, a god who is merciful and wrathful, loving and punishing. Some have said that we need to hold to both of these sides. Jesus didn’t and neither should we. It is time for us to follow Jesus in reconsidering what divinity without retribution looks like.
Wow! This means that we may need to rethink other doctrines, like that of the atonement or of final judgment. And this is scary, for we have invested our lives (and some of us our personal salvation) in believing that we cannot for one instant move away from what we think is the gospel believed everywhere, at all times by everyone. But hold on now. There has never been such a thing, nor is it possible to trace back through the history of the whole church a one size fits all gospel. Attempts have been made to do this but they are nothing more than pseudo or false history. People with open minds can see this. And remember a mind is like a parachute, it is only useful when it is open.
OK, I confess, I got a little snarky at the end of the last blog post. So I will make amends by putting my cards on the table.
Some may think I am saying that there are certain texts in the Bible that do not tell the truth while other texts do. If you perceive this you are absolutely correct! So an objection might be raised. Some may say, “Well, Michael this proves you don’t believe in the inspiration of the Bible nor do you believe that the Bible is God’s Word.” The fact is that I don’t think either of these assumptions is true in the way they have been conceived in the post-Reformation Calvinist tradition.
First of all, Jesus alone is the Word of God (John 1:1-18). It is not the Bible that is incarnate but the Logos, the son of the Abba. Second, I do not worship the Bible but Jesus, he alone reveals the Abba (John 1:18). Third, logos is the term used for the structuring principle of reality in Greek philosophy. For the Greeks, that logos was violence, for the New Testament writers that logos is the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth. It is his love, mercy and compassion on the sick, the sinner, the downtrodden that structures reality. He is the one through whom creation came into existence, it bears his character.
Coming back to my initial post, one can either defend an outdated and inefficient theory of inspiration that requires mental gymnastics worthy of a gold medal or one can relax into re-conceiving just how Scripture speaks to us. For me, I prefer to follow Jesus rather than Calvin or John Owen or Roger Nicole. I would rather take the risk that Jesus is worth following rather than hide myself away in some theological hidey-hole from which I peer out from time to time.
So when it comes to the larger question of the “violence” or “retribution” of God I am asking an entirely different set of questions that those normally asked and answered.
How then do I understand the authority of Scripture? I acknowledge that there are different voices or perspectives in the Bible, notably, that of God and that of humanity. One voice is revelation, the other is religious. But someone may ask, how are we supposed to tell the difference? I answer: How did Jesus tell the difference? The answer is that Jesus’ Abba is not like the other gods, like the gods of mythology and certainly not like the god who requires war, sacrifice and retribution. Jesus hears God in those texts where God is the God of mercy, compassion, generosity, liberality, peace (shalom) and love. I am not being liberal at this point. Jesus could also use texts to critique religion (which he does frequently and which we are loathe to follow unless it is time for a church split), and the state (which we are also loathe to follow in our politically correct patriotic post 9/11 world). Jesus is Israel’s greatest prophet. He alone hears the voice of God and if we follow him we too can hear the Abba’s voice. I hope that the next few posts will offer you an alternative if you are seeking one.
Some say there are many ways to read the Bible. Some say there are only two ways, our way and God’s way. While I am comfortable recognizing that we live in a post-foundationalist, post modern world (that is a mouthful), let’s say that the Bible can be narrowed down to the two alternatives, God’s way of reading the Bible and man’s (patriarchal!) way. Then the question must become, how do we know we see with God’s perspective? One could appeal to church tradition and the antiquity of that tradition. One could say that God has providentially guided the church. Or mommy and daddy said so. Or because the Bible says so (self-appealing authority somehow does not work). However one does it, one is appealing to others who have also believed that they were reading the Bible from God’s perspective.
The downside to thinking you have God’s perspective is that little niggling that goes on in your heart and mind that maybe, just maybe, one has this God-thing wrapped a little too tight. God whispers, a still small voice. A worldview made of clean straight lines suddenly has a curved arc. Instead of looking at the arc as something new and beautiful, the straight-line worldview people immediately began hammering and bending it to fit their nice clean tidy lines. They have a world-view that is settled and civilized. In this book we call this type of perspective ‘old age’ thinking. We use the term ‘old age’ with a double meaning. It can refer to the practice of archaic religion or it can refer to what Paul calls “sinful human logic under the spell of the principalities and powers.”
Some may be asking who it is I am taking on. Actually, I am not taking on anybody; this is not a personal issue. I am addressing a very influential way of thinking known broadly as Neo-Reformed, particularly the American expression of that thinking which has had a global impact. I have some good memories of my journey in the Neo-Reformed world. The evangelical Neo-Reformed world provided Bibles, books, churches, programs, education, TV, radio, music, theme parks, t-shirts, swag of every sort. In short they had everything one needed to become a good Christian. It is a Big Market, a fun place in which to dwell because it seems that everything is supplied to meet my needs.
However, the entire edifice comes tumbling down when it encounters the resurrection gospel of the Risen Jesus. When confronted with the event of the resurrection, certain religious thinking is exposed as ‘old age.’ Every argument is cast down, thousands of unnecessary questions vaporized. Lots of investment lost. The logic of sacrifice is exposed and transcended in the Risen Jesus. All of this deconstruction of certain types of theology comes down to the single word of The Risen Word, Jesus Christ: “Shalom.” It is the enacted utterance of this word that is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. It completely renders some types of theology null and void. Jesus’ resurrection is the game changer. Thankfully, God doesn’t just grace “them” with this gift of deconstruction; it comes to anything and everything ‘old age’, including our theology.
There are tens if not hundreds of millions who have a formative Christian experience in some sort of Evangelical influenced expression of Christian faith. Many have walked away from Evangelicalism. Many have left faith altogether. Many no longer attend church but secretly hope that God is good all the way through. Many more wish they could understand the Bible, both within and without the church. It surely can’t be as scary as the conservatives make it out to be nor as confusing as some progressives claim. There has got to be a way to read the Bible that does some good. Perhaps even brought real healing and inspiration, new creative thinking and radical challenge. Now wouldn’t that be great? In order for this to happen, there are two necessary elements we provide: an open mind and an open heart.
My argument is that the Resurrection matters. It matters because it is an enacted event; it is the first of several key events. The resurrection is where God injects humanity with the cure for its disease. God, the Great Physician, saw our plight and made us whole. Diana Butler-Bass makes the important point that the word ‘doctrine’ comes from the word ‘doctor’ and that doctrines were meant to be healing. The Resurrection of Jesus is the Healing Event. The implications of the resurrection run deep in all other Christian doctrine.
How we get from Scripture to doctrine will also be another difference between the resurrection gospel and certain ways that Evangelicals do. Neo-Reformed thinking is fine, if you live in the 16th century. They believe God wrote the Bible. Everything in the Bible is true because God does not lie. There are no contradictions in the Bible, it can all be harmonized. Only there is no harmony. There is no plurality of voices to create harmony. There is only one voice, that of God.
Too old school. That’s a flat Bible; you can do all kinds of strange things with a flat Bible. It’s like silly putty. A flat reading of the Bible is like a 2D grainy black and white silent film compared to the resurrection which reads the Bible on a Hi-Def BIG HDTV screen with Blu-Ray color and Bose Surround Sound in 4D. Now what would you rather have? A thin schmear of old butter on cold toast or a rich robust Feast? There is a way to read the Bible that is life-giving, thoughtful and joyous. I have invited you to read the Bible with me. How Scripture is used says a lot more than what is believed about it. Believing something to be true about the Bible does not make it true no matter how many have shouted it. What counts, ultimately, is the way the Bible is rendered in your life, that is, how your life interprets the Bible.
You may soon discover something discomforting. Rather than see only one voice in the Bible, that of God, we see two perspectives but three voices in Scripture. I will suggest that the Bible intentionally has these three voices so that we may clearly understand what constitutes revelation and what constitutes human religion. When you have a view of the Bible where it only contains God’s word, you have a view that is at odds with the text itself. This issue is the fundamental one. If you come to the Bible and only hear one voice, you will be confusing and mixing the three voices and miss the revealing Voice of God. It is essential for us to keep the three voices separate. This is the role the Easter message plays. It gives us the one steadfast Voice of God by which to measure the other voices in Scripture. It is the Easter message that forms the key that unlocks the door to interpreting the Bible. You will notice that we do not begin our doctrine section with Scripture, it is the penultimate chapter. It is neither the first nor the final word. It is a provisional word. It is in this chapter on Scripture that you will find the spectacles to put on to read the Bible from the eye-popping perspective of Easter Sunday morning. You can read it first if you want to just confuse yourself. We recommend working through the book from beginning to end so that you may see where redefinition is occurring. That way when you get to the way we render the Bible, it will make sense to you.
“On the third day..”
There is one resurrection story that really informs us what happens in an encounter with the Living Jesus. It comes near the end of Luke’s Gospel. I invite you to pay special attention to verbs where Jesus is the subject.
RSV Luke 24:13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning 23 and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. 28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, 29 but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luk 24:13 RSV)
First, and let’s get it out of the way, verse 21 says that the disciples hoped that Jesus was the coming Redeemer of Israel. They are still stuck thinking in terms of second Temple views of The Coming One. Retributive eschatology is the back-story. That’s where they were coming from. So, just because you may have a retributive eschatology doesn’t mean Jesus will not come to you. That’s the first thing he does. Jesus ‘draws near to them.’ Second he enters into conversation about himself as a stranger. In all of his resurrection appearances he comes as a stranger. Jesus knows that they are trying to link him up to a retributive eschatology but it just isn’t working. Jesus points out to them that “Jesus of Nazareth” had been talking about his death since the feeding of the multitudes who wanted to make him King. He recites a history that is related to both humiliation and exaltation. Third, Jesus hangs in there with them. He doesn’t abandon them. Fourth, he joins them in a prayer of thanksgiving. He joins them in worship. They looked and they listened when he began his prayer. They knew these verbs as they watched him take, bless, break and give the bread. Only one person had that way of breaking bread and giving thanks.
The Emmaus disciples then put two and two together and POOF! Quick as you can say “Bob’s your uncle”, Jesus was gone. Just like that. They knew it was him. But what happens next in the story? They ran right back to Jerusalem to Jesus’ earthly leadership, Peter in particular. They discover that Peter too has had an encounter with Jesus. It was not just them or Peter, it was the women as well. In Jesus’ final encounter in Luke’s Gospel note what is said about the resurrection gospel:
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. 52 (Luk 24:1 RSV)
Interpretive insight ties resurrection, exaltation and the Sending of the Spirit together. What is to get preached? First is Repentance. Let people know that their worldview will change, and second, that they too will change in the announcement of eschatological forgiveness. Jesus’ final act is to make a promise which he fulfills on Pentecost to bless his followers. Blessing is an aspect of Shalom. Blessing imparts the good favor of God to humanity. Blessing will come. Jesus will return to them…on Pentecost.
There are three key areas that the resurrection gospel immediately impacts in the church: discipleship, Bible interpretation (hermeneutics), and worship. Each of these areas has to do with how the resurrection gospel is passed on. The message and the medium are inter-related, just as word and act are related in the resurrection. It does no good to talk about doctrine if it does not also mean a substantive change in how we do this thing called The Christian Life.
I don’t think I have ever heard an Easter sermon that really asked what was going on when Jesus talked text with the boys on the road to Emmaus. What was he doing? Some might say he was showing them certain canonical texts where prophecy was fulfilled in order to demonstrate their veracity so they could be trusted in anything they say. Some say Jesus was showing them the biblical necessity for his death, how he died, what he endured, what he accomplished. They are right, but they do not recognize that their religious logic about sacrifice, which they import into their theological understanding, is that of the ‘old age.’ So they go to the Bible and find what they expect to find: a sacrificial victim who took our sin and God’s wrath. Thus the text becomes read against itself. Is this really the way the New Testament speaks about the death of Jesus? Not at all.
One of the benefits of the gospel being expressed as Gospel (as a piece of literature), is that a multiple witness is born, when the story of Jesus is read through resurrection opened eyes. That witness is that no matter how you slice it or dice it there is a general continuity to the life, death, resurrection, ascension and coming of Jesus as the Spirit. It is the continuity at the heart of God whom we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God whose character never changes. It is the continuity of real, genuine, authentic, self-giving love. “God is love” (I John 1).
Now this is going to be very difficult for some to swallow. Those who seek intellectual certainty are certainly going to rail that I have said that they don’t preach the gospel. Certain people may perceive their position to be unassailable. After all, they have had centuries and thousands of opponents to hone their arguments. For how can one believe that God pours out mercy, clemency and forgiveness upon me liberally, graciously, freely but upon you is poured out quite conservatively and conditionally, or not at all? Easy in the ‘old age.’ That is what one expected from a god.
Now take the Gospel of Matthew. End time judgment is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew Chapter 7 is warning to those who don’t take chapters 5-6 seriously as a discipleship blueprint. Everyone knows what lies at the heart of discipleship in Matthew 5-6: blessing for those not blessed in other Jewish faith expressions; peacemaking, reconciliation, truthfulness, mindfulness, trust, clemency and mercy.
How could so much of Evangelicalism miss that “With the measure you measure, you shall be measured by God”? In other words, judgment is not about the laws we have broken or the taboos we have violated or who God has chosen or elected. Judgment is about the type of measure we use upon others. If we judge others with thimbles of mercy, we should expect no less from God. We have become our own standard and the way in which we treat others is how we can expect to be treated by God as eschatological Judge. That is Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
So why does Jesus do Bible Study with these guys on the road to Emmaus? I can just imagine it.
“Gents, mind if I tag along a bit? Super. So, why are so glum? It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It’s a brand new day. Oh, yeah, heard about him. Tragic you say? What else did you expect? Isn’t it the case that from Abel to Zechariah, there have always been victims? The Psalms are full of the victim’s cry to God for help. One of Isaiah’s followers understood pretty clearly what was going to happen: someone somewhere was going to undergo an excruciating humiliation and suffering. But this would somehow save the people. There’s the suffering righteous person in Wisdom. What do you mean that you are scared? Back from the dead you say? Well, what if he comes back as you expect? Doomed?! Retribution? That’s pretty heavy. Zombie movie stuff. Fulfillment of prophecy you say. Got to be the end? Yeah I know the book of Enoch. The end? Killer stuff, huh, really scary. That horrible day of the wrath of God stuff, right? I don’t think that’s the way it is going to happen.
Sure, I’ll explain. But let me ask this: What did the servant of Isaiah say when he was suffering? What do you mean you don’t know? Isaiah says the servant said nothing. Her voice was completely muted. That’s what happened to this guy Jesus right? He didn’t say anything did he? Oh, he did say something while suffering. OK. So what did he say? Forgive them? You mean, like freely and unconditionally? Forgive them? No strings attached? Wow. He sounds like the kind of guy who gets his prayers answered, don’t you think? What if he comes back and he is not angry or wrathful? Would that, like, blow your mind or what? Peter said what? Well, there you have it. His first word is “Shalom.” No worries mates. Who do you think your Jesus is bringing peace to? The whole world? That is big.
This peace business is not what you expected is it? But what if, what if this is the real deal? What if this is The End, capital T, capital E? Yeah, I know the Doors song. So, what if, maybe, perhaps, possibly, you might be looking at this end time thing out of kilter? It sounds to me like what you expected and what happened were two different things. Shalom, huh? Sounds like you are getting a good deal. I’d take it. Thanks, I’ll be glad to” ‘and he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them..’
Bible study was an essential act that took place after Jesus was raised. When our eyes are opened to see the all embracing love of God expressed in Jesus, risen from the grave, we also see just how skewed our interpretation and expectation of the end could be. The Resurrection confronts our judgment as unjust. We were wrong to crucify Jesus and we wrong about his message and mission. Everything we judge or interpret is somehow skewed; we all have God-is-on-our-side theology and deny it to others. As Bernard Ramm taught us, “God forgives out theology just like he forgives our sin.” The Risen Christ confronts each of us with our own injustice and unjust theology. Like Paul says, we are in this sin thing all together as a species. Sin is a principle or a structural reality within and among humans. We all need our theology corrected because it too is infected by sin. Sin, for Paul is being stuck in ‘old age’ logic, theology and ethics. We are all affected by it because we all live in it and it (human culture) lives in us. So interpreting texts, especially the Bible has also fallen under the spell of the old age.
We cannot help being unjust, it is an aspect of our socializing system which been compromised with the malware of religion. Justice has never been blind. It is broken beyond repair. It needs transformation. Like the movie The Matrix, we are all born into one reality and are given a chance at Another Reality, Real Reality. We are confronted with a truly Just Reality in the resurrection of Jesus for God “has placed all under sin, in order that God might have mercy on all” (Rom 11). The doctrine of original sin is the back story to the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is THE story, but it helps to understand the universal character of the Easter event with a universal back-story. Paul does not have a pessimistic view of humanity in his doctrine of original sin because he knows Jesus has brought salvation. He has great hope in the gospel. How does all this talk of sin relate to the Emmaus story?
Because the disciples perceived themselves as sinners, betrayers, cowards or worse, the disciples were all under the old age illusion that The Day would be a day of wrathful judgment. They thought that both God and the religious authorities were after them. Jesus’ Easter proclamation puts to rest once and for all God’s negative involvement. God came announcing joyous shalom. On the journey to Emmaus that day, Jesus gave to those disciples a method of reading texts and he did it as One raised from the dead. It all ended as good news! Jesus changed their world when he talked Bible that day; their hearts were burning fiercely within them. Surely, one aspect of the resurrection gospel is to let Jesus show us how to read the Scriptures. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to read the Bible from Jesus’ perspective? From the perspective of resurrection you can. After all, Jesus is God’s interpreter (John 1:18) and your Lord.
When we read the story of Jesus through resurrection opened eyes, when we follow the consistent lead of his life, his teachings, his call to discipleship, and his death; when we see that Jesus brings a new and better way; when we let go of those old tired ways that never really worked or satisfied; when we began to read the Bible ‘outside the box’ of received wisdom, then we find exactly what we hoped for in the best of all possible worlds. What’s more, it is better than anything we could have imagined or perceived!
What is it we think Jesus enacted on Easter that would have had the same logic as his sermon in Nazareth, and his rejection of violence in Gethsemane? How did he teach the disciples to hear the voice of God in their Bible? The text records he took them to stories of victimization throughout the scriptural tradition. Now they were not exactly carrying scrolls, so they cited texts and told stories. Jesus did a walk through the Bible with them, only from a perspective they had not trodden before.
Jesus is like and unlike all victims. He is like all victims in that he is the victimized, and victimization comes in many forms. He is the first to self-identify as The Forgiving Victim. He well knows what Abel’s blood speaks. His bloody word will be a better word than that of Abel’s. In the Jewish Bible there are three types of victims and Jesus self-selected one type which prefigured him. Each victim has a role to play within the overall textual frame of reference. That is, the perspective of the victim will determine how you perceive God. So when we come to the text, like Jesus, we want to know whose voice is speaking, for revelation, the resurrection gospel, only comes through the forgiving victim. I explored this more systematically in The Jesus Driven Life. There I showed that while there are two perspectives in the Bible, that of religion and that of revelation, there are three voices. Each voice has a different role to play in relation to violence.
A diagram may help.
You can see how important it is that one view the whole life of Jesus, from incarnation to Pentecost as one contiguous reality, the reality of The Forgiving Victim. Only then does reading the Bible from Jesus’ Easter perspective make sense. Only then can one speak of revelation and stipulate the content of that revelation. The fact that we have multiple perspectives in the Bible is an asset and not a debit. We may have to rethink a lot of things if we follow the Risen Jesus. That may not be such a bad thing however.
The Bible is not a perfect book. It does not need to be a perfect book for there to be revelation loud and clear for those who have ears to hear. The significance of this is that the Protestant foundational article concerning the inspiration of Scripture is unnecessary. There is no need to begin one’s faith by trusting a perfect text, there has never been such a thing and there will never be such a thing. The weakness beginning with a theory of inspiration will always be that one must begin with establishing faith in the text in order to establish faith in God. Theories of inspiration, of how God must be or act and then how God relates to texts or writers are a detriment to clear gospel thinking. The starting point of the resurrection gospel is trust in Jesus’ message from the Abba, ‘Shalom.’
Genuine Christian faith is Easter faith. Faith in the Risen Jesus! Sing Hallelujah! It is not first faith in a book. It is first faith in a person, another human, one like us and let us admit thankfully, not like us. Easter faith is faith in the faithfulness of Jesus. It is faith in his shalom message. That message addresses head-on the problem of human violence and the God of Love. The resurrection gospel is where love conquers all. Love wins. This is the voice of revelation, it is the voice of Jesus, it is the voice of God. The Voice that opens our eyes and ears and sets us free.
Naming revelation, not as a concept but as a person, the Risen Forgiving Victim Jesus, renders meaningless the need to first trust in the Bible before one can trust in God. The Bible does not need to be perfect to communicate God’s Word to us. In fact, its very imperfections can be sensed precisely because of the power of the Easter message. Without a measuring rod, a canon, we could not see where other voices had betrayed and been betrayed. The Easter Voice, the voice of ‘Shalom’, is the Final Voice, the voice by which all other voices are measured. There is no other voice to come. This is it.
The Bible’s ‘setting voice against voice against voice’ three-fold framework clarifies why so many revere the Bible, why some fear it and why others find the Bible repugnant. Different voices create different ways of story-telling. When the voices are mixed up together then, it became awful hard to believe in any really good news. So, many of us just switched it all off when it came to the Bible. It was all so complicated and complex and strange, and that was on a good day. Others tried to fix the problem by putting the Bible through logarithmic contortions that defied rationality using terms like inerrancy and infallibility. If everything in the Bible is about God then none of it really makes any sense. God isn’t really different from all the other gods. It is all religious gobelty-gook.
Recognizing the three voices or trajectories of the Bible clearly shows a redemptive story from creation to new creation. There is a scarlet thread from Genesis to Revelation. It has always been about how God is patient with us humans, and keeps on trying to get through, and does get through in many and marvelous ways. With the Risen Jesus we have a way of reading texts that does not depend on a theory of inspiration. So if you are wondering if we have a theory of inspiration, the answer is no. We do not need one. We have the Inspirer, Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ, Alpha and Omega. He is God’s First Word and God’s Last Word. Jesus is God’s only Word.
Peace be upon you always.
If you are interested in this way of thinking please feel free to read my book The Jesus Driven Life.